Chinese Slam 'Compulsory' Filters

Computer users are up in arms about a Web filtering system the government says must be installed to protect young people from harmful content.
2009-06-11
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Green Dam 305
In this cartoon promoting Green Dam, children are protected from 'undesirable content' by the strong arms of 'state policy', which hold up the Green Dam filter to protect them.
Jinhui "Green Dam" promotional material

HONG KONGChinese computer users and commentators have lashed out publicly at a Web filtering program that the government has ordered installed on all new personal computers in China, saying it wants to protect young people online.

The "Green Dam Youth Escort" is a Windows executable file, which claims to be able to prevent young people from gaining access to undesirable content such as pornography, as well as providing monitoring reports to supervisors about users' activities online.

"According to statistics, young people make up 50 percent of China's 300 million Internet users," a press release carried on the official Green Dam Web site said. "They are the biggest single group of Internet users."

It said software developers Jinhui had already signed user agreements with top computer makers Lenovo, Inspur, and Hedy, who had installed it on 52.7 million machines to date, a deal which has prompted calls in official media for the details of the contract with Jinhui to be made public.

A copy of the government statement posted online, dated May 19, 2009 and sealed with the stamp of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), said the aim of the order was to provide an "environmentally friendly, healthy, and harmonious Internet" for China's young people.

Produced in conjunction with the MIIT, the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, and State Council Information Department, the software is now available in family, commercial, organization, Internet cafe, and campus versions.

'Don't smother us'

Criticisms of Green Dam came thick and fast, and from a variety of directions.

"If you want to boost a person's immunity, then sticking him into a hermetically sealed, sterile container isn't the best way to proceed," said an editorial in the state-run Shenyang Daily newspaper and carried on the Web site of the official People's Daily newspaper.

"We would become like people with HIV, lacking any immunity. Sometimes, to boost the immune system, it's appropriate to come into contact with a confusing natural environment, and to catch a cold or two," the commentary said.

"We want to be cared for, but we don't want to be smothered."

The unsigned commentary also took aim at the cost to the Chinese taxpayer41.7 million yuan (U.S.$6.1 million) in the first year aloneof the government order, which requires all new personal computers shipped from factories in China to include the software by July 1.

"This sort of care could translate into a huge amount of money to be made," the Shenyang newspaper said.

"Green Dam isn't a piece of software; it's a money-making machine. Wherever there is Windows, there will be Green Dam. With 30 million personal computers sold annually in China every year, that's a huge slice of business."

An employee who answered the phone at Zhengzhou-based Jinhui's service center said Green Dam was supposed to give young people a "relaxed and healthy online environment."

"After it has been installed, it will run in the background automatically, and edit out undesirable or pornographic content," the employee said.

Chinese bloggers reacted with scorn, indifference, and concern over possible further censorship of their activities.

"As a middle-aged, bored man, I too will sometimes go online in surreptitious search of unhealthy material to look at," wrote blogger "Meiren Tadie."

"I feel pretty ashamed, but I can't control myself."

"So, when they said on the news that they were promoting the use of Green Dam Youth Escort software in all personal home computers sold around the country, and specifying a deadline, I felt that there was hope for me," he wrote, in apparent irony.

Limited to Windows

The blogger, who uses the operating system Red Hat Linux, said his machine and smart phone declined to install the Windows executable file, however.

"Finally I found a Windows machine that could run it," adding sarcastically: "So this is the future! Access to the Internet with Windows."

An analysis by the GFWor "Great Firewall"censorship blog reached a similar conclusion. Green Dam on runs on Windows, and only with Internet Explorer or Google Chrome browsers, it said. Firefox was unaffected by the filters, testers found.

Meanwhile, the official forum for Green Dam was abuzz with frustrated comments from teachers in remote school locations trying to follow the government's instructions.

"The biggest problem is that I have installed the software on one computer for testing and I find that it is good for breaking the links, but it is useless against "adult," "pornographic," "erotic" Web sites and photos.  What is the use of installing it?," one user wrote in comments translated by Hong Kong-based blogger Roland Soong.

Another blogger wondered if the government would compensate users for damage done by the software's interventions.

"If the program clashes with other programs and affects the computer's other functions, or if the network was hacked and user's private information, such as bank password got stolen, will the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) be ready to pay for the loss?" asked blogger "Deep Blue Sea" in a post translated by Global Voices Online.

'Badly written'

Some wondered, as with many of the Chinese government's attempts to filter Web content to its nationals, whether the software would also be used for political censorship, although details of how the program will run and whether or not it can be uninstalled were still sketchy.

"I found when I was testing this software that there were several times when it filtered political content," blogger "Beifeng" said.

"What's more, this software isn't very stable. It even crashed my system one time. A lot of high schools and primary schools installed this software in May, but a lot of high school students find it easy to circumvent," he added.

"A lot of industry insiders are saying that the software is very badly written."

Open Society Fellow and Web censorship expert Rebecca MacKinnon wrote on her blog that the extent to which Internet filtering was un-transparent and unaccountable was "several magnitudes greater in China".

But she said the debate around civil liberties and protecting children was universal and still unresolved even in more obviously democratic societies.

"Companies are going to need to come up with globally consistent strategies to deal with government demands for censorship, from China to Australia (which has been testing out its own government-mandated filtering) and everywhere in-between," she said.

"Free expression and human rights advocatesnot to mention policymakersalso need to have globally consistent positions. Otherwise it's just too easy...to dismiss their criticisms and concerns as yet another predictable application of Western 'double standards'," MacKinnon wrote.

Original reporting in Cantonese by Lee Kin-kwan and in Mandarin by An Pei. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.